history,  homeschooling

Reading Ancient Hittite Laws with my Kids

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I’ve been reading through an old book on the ancient Hittite laws. (Why? Why not?!) The first interesting detail in the book is the idea that they might not have had a word for the abstract concept of “law.” They had a word for “a law” or “the laws.”

Some of the laws seem unremarkable but others have led to some interesting conversations with my kids. We talked about the following law and how it compares to modern compensation for injuries: “If anyone injures a person and temporarily incapacities him, he shall provide medical care for him. In his place he shall provide a person to work on his estate until he recovers. When he recovers, (his assailant) shall pay him 6 shekels of silver and shall pay the physicians fee as well.”

There are a number of laws pertaining to male slaves paying the brideprice for a (free) woman and taking her as a wife after which “no one shall change her social status.” The commentary in the book says it is a bit ambiguous as to whether that means the woman becomes a slave on marriage and no one may free her, or whether it means she remains a free woman regardless of her marriage to the slave.

There are other laws pertaining to live in sons-in-law, which apparently were paid extra at marriage in exchange for the fact that they become a member of their father-in-law’s household with no possession of their own. I wonder if that was a way in which a younger, landless son could be married off. But I am not sure yet whether they had a primogeniture system of inheritance or not.

Apparently the older Hittite laws said if you stole a couple of bee hives the punishment would be to be exposed to bee stings, but later Hittite laws switched that to having to pay a fine in compensation. In general the laws promoted compensation over punishment.

If one found an ox, horse, donkey or implement one had to return it to the person one who lost it. If the owner couldn’t be found, one had to secure witnesses that one was only maintaining custody. Then if the owner came forward, the item was to be returned. Without witnesses, if the owner found the items the person who possessed them would be assumed to be a thief and have to pay threefold compensation. That law is a good one to ask kids about. Why does society benefit by forcing a thief to pay threefold compensation instead of just return the item?

One law speaks about if you push another man off his ass while he’s crossing a river, and that man drowns. The law is too specific. One of my kids, upon hearing this, instantly wanted to know if things were the same for if one pushes someone off a donkey or a horse. The book I’m reading suggests the law was based on a specific case – on precedent, that is, and probably one where someone was drowning and attempted to save himself but in the process pushed someone else off. The Hittite law says that the man who pushed the other off can be taken (presumably as a slave) by the dead man’s heirs. In this case it seems that intent does not matter. In other cases, intent does seem to be taken into account.

What modern terms correspond to the idea of killing someone “in a quarrel?”

There is so much to wonder about! So much to talk about! For me the best days homeschooling are when I’m reading something interesting and I just sit and discuss it with my children.

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